Elephant Update — Asia and Africa

 

Asia and Africa — where the elephants live.  Separate species, the Asian and African elephants are unalike in many ways.  One of the most pronounced differences is their coloration.  African elephants range from griege to rust to golden, depending upon what color of sand they cover their body with to protect themselves from the sun and insects.  Underneath all that sand and mud, however, is basically a gray animal.  Asian elephants all start life with gray skin, but as they age, a depigmentation takes place around their ears, trunks and heads that results in a pinkish-cast.  Some say they develop “elephant freckles.”  But in fact, it is the opposite — a loss of skin color.

What they share is a history of genocide.  In all of Asia, there are now only 35,000 to 40,000 wild elephants.  Most of the elephants you see when visiting Asia are “working” elephants (some might say enslaved elephants) — in temples, festivals, logging forests, tourist attractions. “Local” demand for ivory long ago decimated Asia’s wild elephant population.  The same has been happening in Africa for centuries, culminating in the crisis of late, which finally focused the world’s attention on possible extinction of the roughly 450,000 remaining wild African elephants.

The convergence of media coverage, NGO commitments and celebrity created an awareness level that is actually making a difference, albeit incremental and not without substantial future challenges.  It’s a process of two steps forward, one step backward in many cases as evidenced by recent news reports.

China’s pledge to close legal ivory markets and trading by the end of this year is already having an impact on the market.  Prices are falling as demand is diminishing.  Some traders are now faced with an “over supply” although much of their supply is likely black market ivory.  Hong Kong has lagged behind the mainland.  This month, legislation has been introduced in the former British colony that would phase out the legal market over a five-year period.  Recent hearings contained a face-off between African rangers (who pleaded that the time frame be reduced as they put their lives on the line every day) and traders (who argue that they have too much stockpile to sell by 2021).

Legal markets in Japan remain, and there has been much less public attention paid to its markets than China’s.  Regulations exist, but enforcement is  reportedly lax, resulting in fairly vibrant legal and illegal markets.  Japan has an enormous consumer class, as well longstanding traditions of coveting ivory objects.  We should not assume China’s progress extends to Japan and other Asian markets.  In fact, surplus ivory in Hong Kong and China may well find its way into Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and Laos.

In Myanmar, which has a population of 1,500 – 2,000 wild elephants, poaching has recently increased due to a new skin cure fadThe ashes of elephant skin, mixed with coconut oil, is the new cure for eczema while ground elephant teeth supposedly whitens skin.  Although there is no scientific basis for either, as we all know, fads can flourish without any basis in fact.

Overall, Africa’s elephant populations are alarmingly small. In East Africa, elephant populations are increasing in some areas, and in Southern Africa, national parks are over-crowded because the elephants know to seek out protected areas. In addition to stressing the environment in the parks, large elephant populations are increasing human-wildlife conflict. Even if the demand for ivory fell so low that poaching for ivory became history, challenges for the world’s largest land mammal remain.  Africa’s  human population continues to explode and its untapped economic potential is blossoming.

Again, two steps forward, one step backwards.  We should celebrate the accomplishments of recent years; particularly the decline of demand and prices in China and increased vigilance in African countries in catching and prosecuting poachers and traders.  Yet, we cannot let the positive momentum become undernourished; for if we take our foot off the pedal now, elephants everywhere will continue to decline.  Go to the Experts tab on this site, chose an organization whose conservation activities appeal to you and support them!  You really can make a difference.

New Year’s Greetings

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Nothing like a new year to reflect, reboot,  recommit and resolve!

From the elephants’ point of view, 2015 was a better year than recent years.  While poaching remains at a critical level, with more elephants dying than being born each year, progress was made on a number of fronts.  The price of ivory actually declined, while an increase in confiscations took more “product” out of the marketplace.  The coincidence of the two may appear counter intuitive (e.g., less product theoretically would raise prices) but perhaps demand for ivory finished products is finally declining and the supply chain just hasn’t caught up with that reality.  High profile campaigns by celebrities, NGOs and media outlets seem to have broken through the sound barrier, resulting in major political and policy efforts to shut down the trade in ivory.

Looking back, here are some month-by-month highlights of ivory politics:

January:  Release of “The Last Days of Ivory” short film and campaign by award-winning producer Kathryn Bigelow and WildAid

February:  China announces a one-year ban on the import of ivory carvings for one year

March:  Britain’s Prince William calls for an end to all trade in ivory during a visit to China

April:  Singer Billy Joel and the Wildlife Conservation Society release a new video to raise awareness of elephant poaching

May:  Chinese government announces that it plans to shut down all domestic trade in ivory

June:  DNA from elephant tusks reveals poaching routes

July: UN adopts resolution on wildlife trafficking

August:  U.S. announces unprecedented coalition to fight wildlife trafficking

September:  U.S. and China agree to halt ivory trade

October:  California passes ban on ivory sales

November:  African countries demand total ban on international ivory trade

December:  Hong Kong legislature passes motion calling for smuggling crackdown

Just one year ago, these collective accomplishments would have been unimaginable. However impressive though, they are but a beginning not an end.  2016 is the year to build upon 2015’s achievements and turn “plans” and “intentions” into real, meaningful action.  We talked the talk in 2015, now we have to walk the walk in 2016.  Put another way, we were given tools in 2015, we must use them in 2016.  Happy New Year to all!

Elemental Ivory

this tusk is mine copyIt is elemental that ivory belongs on elephants, not our shelves.

The real world of course always makes things more complicated.  Recent, high profile destruction of ivory stockpiles (China, U.S. Philippines) have prompted pledges of more public acts of ivory demolition (France, Hong Kong, U.K.). Some of the ivory is burnt in ceremonial bonfires; some is crushed and will be turned into monuments that protest poaching.  If the majority of consumers do not realize that elephants must die in order for an ivory trinket to be produced, then dramatic media events such as these should help educate the consuming public. In a global media environment filled with the extreme of just about everything, issuing a press release can’t compete with media-genic sacrifices. We need an abundance of dynamic, high profile, attention-grabbing efforts to convince people not to buy ivory.

Having said that, as I watch the various parties schedule their ivory stockpile destruction events, I wonder about the lasting efficacy of this destruction.  The first thing that bothers me is the authenticity of the actions. You can still buy ivory legally in all these countries.  Most stockpiles are comprised of illegal ivory that has been confiscated.  Destroying it is an easier decision than reconciling what to do with a product you cannot monetize because ivory harvested after 1989 is illegal, even though it really isn’t possible to verify all ivory legally sold in your market was obtained pre-1989.  No one can figure that one out so the decision is made to destroy it and get some good press but put off dealing with the more difficult issue of should ivory be legal at all.

If you look at the ivory economy, there are three general categories of ivory in trade: government stockpiles, privately owned/held ivory objects, and ivory “in play,” or somewhere in the supply chain between being harvested and being sold to the end consumer.  I’ve expressed my thoughts about government stockpiles. I do not worry about ivory owned by individuals and collections.  It’s the ivory in the pipeline, or still “for sale,” that is unresolved.  If all poaching ceased today, how should we deal with the ivory in the pipeline?  Should it all be confiscated and destroyed?  Or is there some greater good that it can achieve?  The European Union is calling upon its member states to pass moriatoria on ivory sales until elephant poaching is no longer a problem.  If all European countries adopt such a law, what then should they do with the illegal ivory they will confiscate? In the long term, is there a viable, legal market for ivory objects that can fund conservation programs?

The idealist in me would love to see all confiscated ivory go to a secure global ivory bank, where it is kept as a silent monument to all the dead elephants.  People could donate ivory objects it to the bank, receiving an audited tax credit as a charitable donation. Limited sales of items to national museums only from the bank could fund a global communications program to convince consumers not to buy any more ivory.  Then, when the killing stops and the crime rings have moved onto another marketplace, perhaps we can find a “greater good use” of all that ivory.  But those are the ruminations of my idealistic side.

In the real world, I think we should keep educating consumers that ivory is for elephants — people don’t have a clue how to handle it responsibly.

Tusk Seizure

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Over the weekend, authorities in Hong Kong seized two enormous illegal shipments of elephant tusks (Four tons of African Ivory Caught in Hong Kong).

Together, they represent the death of about 600 elephants.  Experts believe the ivory to be from elephants killed in Kenya and Tanzania.

During a press conference, a Hong Kong port official stated that discovering ivory in Hong Kong is an isolated incident; that the ivory was most likely on its way to Japan or Taiwan. Yet, Hong Kong has been a center in ivory carving for centuries, and 70% of illegal ivory shipments end up in China.  Beware of official statements.

Tanzania too finds itself in a compromised position as it has recently been lobbying CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) to be permitted to sell its ivory stockpile to raise funds for anti-poaching activities. Since the CITES ban on trading ivory in 1989, only a few such sales have been permitted. Those that have taken place involved price fixing and resulted in even more demand for ivory.

It is difficult to track down the truth when the drama involves wild animals in remote areas, organized crime rings, multiple countries with entrenched corruption and a buying public that think elephants shed their tusks every year, just like deer shed their antlers.

But this we know to be true:  harvesting tusks requires killing the elephant; elephant poaching is the highest it has been since 1989; stopping demand is the surest way to stop the killing.

Send the e-card above (click on dont_buy_ivory for a pdf version) to everyone you know. . .stopping the demand for items carved from elephant ivory is the only sure-fired way to make sure we have elephants forever.